The earliest evidence of tea drinkers, around 59 BC, was found among people of the Western Han dynasty. They boiled tea leaves often with grain and other ingredients, mainly using it as a form of sustenance. Although writers, statesmen, meta physicians and clergy all took to drinking tea, the philosophy and techniques of preparation did not become an art form until the scholars instilled tea with their aesthetic sensibilities almost six hundred years later.
Taoist recluses and Chan Buddhist monks certainly played an important role in the development of tea, Buddhist monasteries and Taoist hermitages were built in remote places. Their locations on mountain slopes proved to be perfect for growing tea plants and tapping sparkling springs. Buddhist monks used tea as a medicinal herb. They came to understand its properties for relief of headache, stomachache and as a stimulant to help with long hours of prayer and meditation. Buddhist monasteries, it seems, had developed some sort of tea ritual. Solemnity and decorum are observed in all aspects of monastic life, so prescribed ways of handling and drinking tea lent themselves to the monks' practices. Taoists, like the Buddhists, sat in meditation to attain calmness, and so tea became essential for them as well. Cooking the leaves directly in a pot, they set it aside to observe the profound change in the color of the water and to appreciate tea's natural beauty. The scholars added a Confucian outlook to these religious attitudes that were more liberal and relaxed.
People of the Tang dynasty, living during a period of great economic, social and cultural prosperity, were the ones who started to develop tea drinking into an art. This was China's "Golden Age." The luxurious, cosmopolitan capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) was the gateway for Chinese goods to head west along the Silk Road to Persia, Egypt and beyond. Drinking tea in social settings reflected not only the economic prosperity of this new merchant class, but their cultural blossoming. They prepared and served tea by grinding the leaves into powder, placing it in a bowl, covering it with boiling water, then whisking it to a thick frothy consistency, akin to the method adopted by the Japanese in their tea ceremony.
Participants in the burgeoning tea culture would gather to sample exotic teas, appraise the quality of the water and admire the finery of the tea utensils they had acquired. Far from being only a medicinal elixir used by monks, tea was now used as a beverage for fun, entertainment and sport as people began to play tea games. Rules were written for what came to be known as "Game Tea." Tea was whisked to a thick frothy consistency, and the person stirring up the thickest foam would win. Beyond the competition, what counted most was the quality of the tea and the chance to show off one's tea utensils. As Game Tea flourished throughout the country, tea sets, especially tea bowls, were accorded great importance. There were no pouring kettles. For boiling and pouring water they used a tall and narrow earthenware bottle that had a curved spout Tea masters who wanted to know the exact temperature of the water could not see the size of the bubbles as one can when lifting the lid off a kettle. They had to judge the water's readiness by listening to the sounds of the seething water.
During the Tang period, the scholar Lu Yu (733-804) wrote the first authoritative treatise on tea and tea culture, Chajing ("The Book of Tea"). Comprised of three volumes divided into ten chapters, the texts classify in detail different kinds of tea, brewing methods, utensils, types of water and the various processes of tea making. The first chapter deals with the origin of tea, the soil and climate suitable for cultivation. Chapters Two and Three cover tea processing and the equipment needed. Chapter Four looks at utensils for making and drinking tea. Chapter Five deals with the art of making tea. Chapter Six explores the techniques of drinking tea and standards of tea appreciation. Chapter Seven records the history of Chinese tea drinking habits. Chapter Eight describes China's tea-producing regions and the qualities of different teas. Chapter Nine outlines drinking vessels and the number of tea-related things to be used on different occasions. The final chapter details tea paintings and advocates using them to introduce tea to newcomers. Late Tang scholars continued the evolution of tea art with such works as the Sixteen Varieties of Tea, by Su Yi, which addressed new ideas for the art of making tea, and Comments on the Waters for Making Tea by Zhang Youxin, which systematically detailed the values of China's river waters, mountain springs, pools and lakes.
As Buddhism spread throughout China, tea drinking and its importance continued to grow. During the Song dynasty, tea culture expanded through the patronage of the upper classes and the common people. The art of tea rose to new heights with the great number of scholar tea masters as well as the encouragement of Emperor Hui Zong, known as the "Tea Emperor." Reputedly the most scholarly emperor, he excelled in poetry, calligraphy and painting. His achievements included a treatise on tea, the Taquan Chalun, which covers everything from plucking to processing to drinking. Most importantly it shows the elevated status given to tea and how tea art was beginning to reach a high level of refinement.
In the Tang period, cakes of tea known as "tribute tea" were brought to the emperor. By the Song period "tribute tea" had become of paramount importance to the imperial court as it was a vital component of the Chinese economy. The finest tribute teas were brought to the emperor The next choicest teas were given to members of the imperial family, bestowed as gifts or perhaps given to scholar-officials. With the rise of the scholar class during this time, their increased influence on the development of the tea aesthetic was pervasive. The scholars viewed the popular Game Tea as a corruption of Confucian ideals, giving too much attention to garish display and frivolous possessions. In the view of the scholar, the art of tea drinking needed to be subtle, sophisticated and in harmony with nature, During this time the celebrated scholar, Cai Xiang, outlined criteria for judging the color, fragrance, taste and quality of teas. He began to address tea sets, focusing on the need for harmony between the colors of the utensils and the tea. His aesthetic judgment advocated the use of dark color glazes to better set off light-colored tea. Black glazes for tea bowls were the most highly prized. These included an Oil Spot glaze, a purplish-black Hare's Fur glaze, and black glaze with a green mulberry leaf pattern. Other colors favored for bowls during the Song period were blue, bluish white and a honey-colored glaze.
In the Yuan dynasty, a difficult period when the Mongols ruled China, the scholars followed their predecessors' simple and natural way of making tea. A manifestation of this time was the scholars' deeper desire to return to nature. They preferred to drink tea in the hills, near the river, under ancient trees or by a rustic cottage, A famous poem taught "the natural rhythm contained in tea could only be perfectly learned while collecting water from the river and cooking tea in the wilds, on a moonlit night, when the toll from an ancient temple and the sound of the watch from the Old City echoed around."
The continued development of tea art during the Ming dynasty, an era of peace and prosperity closely reflected Song traditions. By then, tea drinking had become an indispensable part of the scholars' literary gatherings. Tea, as the subject for expressing thoughts and feelings, was manifest in innumerable stories, heartfelt poems and beautifully conceived paintings. The paintings, meant to deepen people's understanding of tea's inner secrets, were genre scenes rather than details of brewing tea. Most showed scholars beside a gurgling mountain spring or surging river or inside an ancient pavilion playing the zither and drinking tea. In the late Ming dynasty, kettles for boiling water took over from the tea bottle. Included in the stylistic change was the shallow drinking bowl that gave way to small delicate teacups.
Those who are unfamiliar with tea culture often refer to Chinese tea art as the Chinese tea ceremony. The Chinese believe that tea, though a useful adjunct to ceremonial occasions, is best enjoyed in a restful and relaxed atmosphere, The highly formalized Japanese tea ceremony, developed by Zen Buddhist monks, is practiced through rigid forms and precise etiquette, stressing quietude and restraint. Chinese tea preparation had aroused interest among the Zen Buddhist monks who came to study in China. They took back to Japan the nucleus of what evolved into the highly structured and elaborate Japanese tea ceremony. The Zen monk Murata Shuko (1423-1502) wrote down formal rules uniting tea and spirituality, eliminating the excessive display of utensils much the same as scholars had done during the Tang dynasty. He was followed by Sen-no Rikyu (1522-1591) who then established a stricter format which further emphasized Zen ideals of austerity and simplicity in what became the Japanese tea ceremony. How directly the scholars' attitudes influenced the development of the "Japanese tea aesthetic" is not certain. What is known is the Japanese began by importing Chinese tea utensils. Sen-no Rikyu stopped the importation of Chinese vessels, turning over the responsibility to the Japanese tile maker, Chojiro, in what developed into the "raku aesthetic," a sensibility found in Chinese nature art, Chinese tea art developed through the aesthetic sensibilities of the scholars, evolving in a similar way to their other artistic expressions. As always, they intertwined Buddhist ideals with Confucian and Taoist teachings. Their artistic attitudes were already being employed at the time Sen-no Rikyu was developing the Japanese tea aesthetic. So philosophically, if not directly, the Japanese shared the scholars' sensibilities, Hhe main point of divergence occurs between the Chinese and Japanese understanding of Tao, To the Chinese, Tao is "the nature within things." To the Japanese, Tao (Do in Japanese) is a skill. The Japanese practice Chado ("The Way of Tea"), where the mastery of a skill, with aesthetic sensitivity, could lead to spiritual enlightenment To the Chinese scholars, process is merely a form and the japanese "Way of Tea" probably seemed pretentious. The Chinese art of tea stresses informality with artistic intent. The enjoyment of selecting, brewing and tasting tea, while reading a poetic verse, appreciating beautiful music and using a variety of interesting tea utensils, comes first.
In his studio, the scholar isolated himself from others and found the calm necessary for study and contemplation. There he studied the Confucian classics, wrote poetry, played music, practiced calligraphy and painted. The scholars enjoyed taking tea as a stimulant when working or at times of social and intellectual discourse. What they lacked was a pouring utensil that reflected the sophistication of their aesthetic sensibilities. Therefore, the utensil used for brewing and serving tea needed to be more than a mere utilitarian object. Yixing had become a meeting place where many great scholars gathered. The irregularities and seeming crudeness of hand-formed Yixing wares, finished without a coat of smooth glaze, were fully in accordance with the honest and simple expressions of scholarly taste. For them, Yixing ware held the harmonious balance between man (the maker) and nature (clay). To express their aesthetic attitudes and intellectual interests, they began to design vessels for pouring tea that were filled with symbolic content. This provided them with philosophical nourishment and moral inspiration, as the need for such symbolism, both illusive and explicit, permeated ail aspects of the objects a scholar employed. The fruit of their thoughtful reflection was the first vessel that can be called a teapot.
Yaji (elegant gatherings) became a favorite pastime among scholars, and entertaining guests with a cup of tea grew to be a fundamental social activity. The scholars found it best to drink tea with very few participants. Generally speaking, there might be just two or three guests. This limited number allowed for a quiet atmosphere where they could share views among old friends with whom they felt at ease or undemanding visitors who enjoyed taking things quietly and could appreciate simple pleasures, Incense, burned to purify the air, would be banished before a tea session so that its heavy fragrance would not mar the subtle aroma of fine tea. To further the experience, the host would hang tea-related paintings, plant various rare flowers and set out interesting objects for the guests to appraise and choose.
There are many ways of making tea, and to do it with elegance takes superior skill. After the tea leaves are placed into the pot using a bamboo scoop, hot water is then poured into the teapot with a graceful me. When the sweet smell of the tea floats in the air and the color of the tea is just right, it is stirred and then poured into small teacups adeptly and gracefully. The host's expertise is demonstrated by a steady pouring motion back and forth across the cups ending with each being evenly filled to the same height and color, It would be unacceptable for one guest's tea to be stronger or weaker, lighter or darker. After pouring, one by one the host holds the small cups of tea before the guests. First to be served is the chief guest and then the others according to their age, generation or status. Finally the host joins them. Instead of drinking tea in one mouthful, a guest should let it turn around the tongue and fully realize the fragrance before swallowing it, Then the guest must show the bottom of the teacup to the host to express sincere gratitude in praise of the tea and the host's superior skills. One small pot of tea might produce as many as seven infusions. After the first pouring of tea, each succeeding infusion should have a slightly different color, reaching a crescendo and tapering back down. When the guests have finished one kind of tea, the host may put a different tea into another teapot, and they begin again. After several rounds of drinking and the tea has sent forth its fragrance, the host takes the leaves out of the teapot with a bamboo clip. He then places some of the tea leaves in a tiny cup to let the guests enjoy their beauty and at the same time show that he will not make tea with these leaves again.
The host may talk about the beautiful scenery or tell stories about a famous tea, all of which have their own romantic legends. In this atmosphere, both tea drinking and the objects related to brewing tea became the subject of artistic attention and scholarly interests. Tea people are interested in the tea, where it comes from, the merits of different teas, the history of any unusual utensils, the way of making it and so on. Everything in sight is combined to engender the poetic feeling associated with tea drinking. Scholars would not only eulogize famous teas and utensils, but mountains, spring waters or places where they had been or which they had longed to see,
Selection of a teapot would relate to the specific reason for the tea gathering—the season, its color or shape or to satisfy the aesthetic interest of the guests. To suit this sensitively arranged backdrop, Yixing teapots, formed into shapes that are naturalistic or simplified geometry, with attendant symbolic imagery, were especially prized. The rich natural color of the clay was in perfect harmony with the setting. The Yixing teapot, because of its small size and unglazed walls, enhanced both the bouquet and flavor of the tea. Furthermore, Yixing teapots kept the tea warm longer than porcelain teapots, although small porcelain cups that would cool the tea faster were acceptable.